Sunday, February 6, 2011

Demolish, do not exclude

This is based on a comment I made here.

Someone from a libertarian-conservative think tank publishes an opinion piece suggesting that same-sex marriage is a reasonable thing. As the piece concludes:
If marriage is so socially beneficial, why not encourage as many to join it as possible? The choice is between excluding gay people from the foundation of strong families or inviting them in.
This prompted a prominent Australian anti-gay activist, Bill Muehlenberg, to write a piece claiming that homosexual motive was to change marriage and that same-sex marriage would be a social disaster:
The truth is, homosexuals do not at all have in mind what most of us understand marriage to be. Indeed, they have something radically different in mind. Most seek to radically expand and alter the common understanding of marriage. Long-term monogamous fidelity is seldom part of this new understanding.
This is the standard “Homosexual Agenda” move: homosexuals have An Agenda and it's Baaaaad. After quoting various queer folk (six) suggesting that monogamy would not be part of same-sex marriage, Muehlenberg concludes:
The attempt to radically redefine the very essence of marriage is not a minor word change. It will be a major transformation of society as we know it. But the radical social activists know they have to weaken up the public to accept such massive social changes.
That is way it is a truism that social engineering is always preceded by verbal engineering. And there is plenty of this verbal sleight of hand taking place right now, even by so-called conservative social commentators.
This is the “Homosexuals Will Corrupt Anything They Are Allowed Into” move combined with the “There Can Be No Moral Truth To Their Claims, So It Must Be A Trick” move.

So far, fairly standard anti-gay activist stuff: if anything, a relatively mild version.

Muehlenberg’s piece was published on Online Opinion, a very open online opinion website. The organiser, Graham Young, had packaged his website with various other ‘high end’ Australian blogs in a common domain for advertising. After some activism against the site for running Muehlenberg's piece, ANZ and IBM decided to pull their advertising, as Christopher Pearson set out in an article in The Australian. This is a form of secondary boycott, as Skepticlawyer explains in a post which prompted the original version for the following.

So, my response is one of: good grief, where to start?

First, equal protection of the law is a good reason NOT to have hate speech laws and codes. These things are never equal in application or coverage. Some ‘hate’ or ‘offense’ always counts more than others.

Second, Online Opinion is precisely about that: a vehicle for expressing opinion. It does not have an opinion line and it is ludicrous to target it as if does so (or expect it do to so), let alone thereby penalising such a varied range of blogs.

Third, Muehlenberg is very intellectually low rent. A task I keep putting off is wading through his stuff and documenting how intellectually poor it is.

Muehlenberg has the same problem that anti-Semites had when granting Jews equality before the law was a fraught issue: invoking a large majority against a small and vulnerable minority can so easily be portrayed as the monstrous bullying it is (or seeks to be). So, anti-queer activists such as Muehlenberg use exactly the same tactics as anti-Jewish activists did:
(1) Claim there is a single view and purpose among said group (hence all homosexuals have the same purpose regarding marriage, according to Muehlenberg).

(2) Claim that they are actually powerful group, not a small and vulnerable minority at all (which the secondary boycott nonsense just feeds).

(3) Claim that they are fundamentally perverse by nature (so, gays aren’t monogamous: of course, lesbians notoriously have stable monogamous relationships, but we just ignore that, as we do heterosexual infidelity and the argument that promoting monogamy is precisely a reason to extend marriage).

(4) Claim that they have enormous corrupting power. Hence allowing same-sex marriage will profoundly change society. The historical evidence is that is nonsense. But Muehlenberg does not want to consider evidence that the endless war against human sexual diversity he advocates is a pointless and destructive war (except for the purpose of promoting the prime benefit of bigotry — selling effortless virtue and selling oneself as a “gatekeeper of righteousness”).
Arguments for equality for any group usually display two broad approaches:
(1) This society/institution is fine, it should just stop excluding us and will continue to work fine if we are included.

(2) That we are excluded shows this society/institution is deeply flawed and needs to be replaced/restructured, which our inclusion/liberation will be a lever to do.
Arguments against granting some group full membership of the moral community and equal protection of the laws regularly use advocacy of (2) to argue that (1) cannot happen, which is precisely what Muehlenberg is doing. The evidence is, again and again, that there is a great deal more continuity than profound change when exclusions are lifted. Giving Jews, Catholics, Protestants, blacks, women etc equal protection of the laws did not undermine the basic structures of society. On the contrary, it improved access to their talents and stopped wasting resources on exclusion. Giving votes to women made politics more responsive to their concerns, but the continuity in basic patterns and structures clearly far outweighed changes beyond such responsiveness.

But, since the entire argument for exclusion typically rests on “they are not adequate/proper versions of the human”, the opponents are bound to, in effect, agree with the radicals and deny the case of the just-includers. As the claim of the excluders is, in fact, profoundly wrong, the reality of common humanity again and again proves to trump claims of special identity and produce far more continuity than change.

As it will here, as the anthropological evidence makes quite clear. But Muehlenberg is not interested in evidence except when it is convenient.

The historical evidence about marriage in general, and same-sex marriage in particular, is much more complicated than Muehlenberg’s simplicities imply. Regarding the medieval evidence, for example, it took the Church quite a lot of debate to decide that consummation was necessary for marriage, which makes contemporary natural law theorists making such a big deal of penile-vaginal sex as an “obvious” defining feature of marriage amusing. While Saint Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx had this to say, in his Spiritual Friendship on Jesus and St John:
Jesus himself, is in everything like us. Patient and compassionate with others in every matter. He transfigured this sort of love through the expression of his own love; for he allowed only one – not all – to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love; and the closer they were, the more copiously did the secrets of their heavenly marriage impart the sweet smell of their spiritual chrism to their love.
Then there is the fun dispute over Orthodox rites of same-sex bonding.

Yes, of course Muehlenberg is pushing a bigoted line. Bigots ALWAYS claim to be defending moral decency, because bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim: it is a claim about who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, in the moral community.

Secondary boycotts just feed the notion that he and his are Heroic Fighters Against A Force of Great Corrupting Power which anti-queer activists make in the same way and for the same reasons anti-Jewish activists make. But it is easy to knock over Muehlenberg’s arguments, which makes feeding the noxious analysis of social dynamics his sort of activism feeds off all the more deeply stupid and self-defeating.

UPDATE Things get murkier: it appears has been alleged that it was a failure to police the comments on Muehlenberg's post which was the big problem. But that may be an exaggeration.


  1. "Claim that they have enormous corrupting power. Hence allowing same-sex marriage will profoundly change society. The historical evidence is that is nonsense."

    Actually, the beauty of this stupid argument is that it is self-justifying.

    The fact that society is willing to entertain the idea of gay marriage proves that gays are changing society. Therefore, if society will become more tolerant toward gays, gays will become more tolerated, which will inevitably lead to...

    traditional values (that include homophobia) being discredited.


    Everybody (and especially our children, who we struggle to bring up in the right way) becoming gay.

  2. I don't understand people who think gay marriage will have a huge societal impact, and I don't have any strong feelings about the subject myself, but I still have some questions after reading the linked post and yours. If homosexual men aren't usually monogamous, and if they won't practice marriage as a monogamous institution (two big ifs, I know, but they seem at least somewhat plausible), then isn't that a reasonable argument that gay men marrying will change the institution of marriage? (I'm really asking more to be proved wrong than anything else).

  3. Micha: nicely put.

    Fred R: there have always been divergent sub groups. The C18th British aristocracy in particular was noted for the lack of adherence to monogamy after the wife had produced "an heir and a spare". Very Roman in that sense. I seriously doubt that gay men will have the social impact that the C18th British aristocracy -- a far more socially dominant group -- had on the institution of marriage (which was very minor anyway).

  4. I think the issue of gay marriage is a proxy for a debate over social changes. I think what most so-cons really care about is the general failing state of marriage, and gay marriage is just the issue where they've decided to make a stand. And honestly I do not think most on the left really care about these issues, or even see them as positive developments (liberation from patriarchy!). You and others argue that gay marriage will actually strengthen the institution, and while I don't doubt your sincerity, I think this argument is often advanced in bad faith.

    Let me put it this way - I think anyone advancing your kind of argument should be required to state what positive legal/social/cultural steps they want to take to fight the rising tide of divorce, single motherhood, out-of-wedlock births, etc.

  5. "I think the issue of gay marriage is a proxy for a debate over social changes. I think what most so-cons really care about is the general failing state of marriage, and gay marriage is just the issue where they've decided to make a stand."

    You are being too kind. What they are doing is using gays and gay marriage as scapegoats to the other social problems you mention and which have nothing to do with gay rights.

    It could be argued that divorce, single motherhood, out-of-wedlock births are private issues that are not the responsibility of the state, or that he responsibility of the state is mostly to educate young people so they will be able to deal with sex and marriage and divorce in a mature way. You could give financial incentives to married couples. In any case, gay marriage doesn't have much to do with these issues except giving gays the same right to get married, be faithful or not toward their spouses, and possibly get divorce.

  6. As we do have people whose sexual interests and activities are exclusively with people of the same gender. Can someone explain how they contribute to “the rising tide of divorce, single motherhood, out-of-wedlock births, etc.” Especially when not permitted to marry they can have no possible effect on divorce rates. And shouldn’t single motherhood be rephrased as sole parenthood.

  7. Salem: I think the issue of gay marriage is a proxy for a debate over social changes. Yes, but Micha is also right it is precisely like anti-Jewish activism prior to the Holocaust: Jews were a vulnerable minority used as scapegoats for wider angsts, queers are in the same role now. They are a small, vulnerable minority so easy targets to "take a stand".

    I think anyone advancing your kind of argument should be required to state what positive legal/social/cultural steps they want to take to fight the rising tide of divorce, single motherhood, out-of-wedlock births, etc. No, no more than anyone arguing for giving Jews and blacks equal protection of the law in previous decades was required to address whatever angst issues were used against them. The argument is over equal protection of the law: it is scapegoating to tie it to those larger issues. (See Micha's and entech's comments).

    Entech: I agree!

    Micha: Agree with your first paragraph. The second deals with a whole lot of big issues that I do not have a simple response to.